At the American Planning Association (APA) annual conference, I was reminded of the awesome impact of community planning on the quality of our lives. Our communities are transformed by good planning or hampered by poor planning. The crowds at the APA conference were there to absorb new ideas and share great stories with their peers.
My experiences in planning efforts were dominated by documents, plans, maps, public hearings and comment sessions, planning workshops, meetings, minutes and responses. In short, lots and lots of paper. At times, these documents were archived. But sometimes, they were lost or damaged as they were carried to meeting after meeting. In those days, we had to carry around the documents and physically come together to review and consider possibilities. We also had to invite our communities to meet with us to discuss and prioritize action steps.
Those same activities still characterize the planning and creation of our communities, but they have become principles rather than techniques now that we have great tools like websites, social media, GIS, document management and even electronic plan review. These tools support the process of inviting our colleagues and our constituents into the process and help ensure better input and real-time collaboration. The result? Even better communities.
So how do these tools ensure better communities?
By making the planning and public comment process more convenient, they create stronger citizen engagement. There were signs of social networking, web traffic and more at APA. But what fuels your community’s website? Are the reports, studies and draft plans available on your website so constituents can easily read and understand the options being considered? Does the content you are creating or consulting have a permanent, safe repository so that it can be consulted by future planners or other staff?
The days of collecting public input exclusively through letters and public hearings is over, and it always limited the range of citizens who participated. With tools like document management, you archive critical documents, photos, video and audio and automatically make them available to constituents via your website. You can even connect these documents directly to web-based GIS applications and maps you have developed to better evaluate options. Using self-service tools like your website means you can meet your constituents where they are most likely to be, and this is the path to greater citizen engagement in your planning efforts.
Electronic plan review is cheaper and more efficient. Document management and workflow automation can be brought together to make your plan review process electronic. This has many benefits. Your community can submit plans electronically through a web portal, reducing the cost of submission and submitters can monitor the process from the website, keeping them up-to-date on the review’s progress. Internally, staff can receive documents automatically and review them simultaneously with real-time comments and mark-ups – allowing them to work together as a virtual team.
This speeds up your internal processes and gives your review coordinators visibility into each individual’s review as well as insight into when they are completed or lagging in behind. As they work, the comments and mark-ups are collected electronically and aggregated to produce correspondence back to the submitter, who can pick up marked-up plans with comments from the same website and then re-submit their revisions. This eliminates the need for routing by intra-office mail or in-person meetings, subtracting days from your process.
After review, preserving each revision and review is easy with electronic plan review. Once plans are approved, they can be automatically archived into your repository and marked as the final, approved version. This ensures that you can identify the approved version available for current and future needs while retaining any early versions for historical reasons.
There is no doubt that good planning helps our communities thrive and grow economically. After recent budget contractions, it can be a struggle to balance planning and the drive to allow economic development to move forward more quickly. Added to this is the challenge to engage your community to ensure that it develops in line with their hopes and dreams.
The way forward is to continue to use the technology tools available to you while preserving the overall process of collaborative planning. With document management and electronic plan review, you can lay a foundation for engaging future constituents while increasing the efficiency of your planning reviews. And, with real time collaboration through electronic plan review, you enhance the quality of projects and benefit from non-stop inspiration from your peers!